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Arizona cities face new rules in civic transparency

Diana Bundschuh, Glendale's deputy chief information technology officer, says the city developed the Follow Your Money website to allow visitors to research down to individual expenditures of taxpayer dollars. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Julia Tylor)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Those curious about how much it cost this city to put up walking maps downtown or what kind of electricity bills the cemeteries run up can find out with just a few clicks of a mouse.

With a state law requiring cities to be more transparent about how they spend money, Glendale decided to go beyond the bare minimum, according to Diana Bundschuh, the city's deputy chief information technology officer.

The result: Follow Your Money, a website launched last year that lets users research down to individual transactions.

"We spent a lot of time in thinking about how many clicks did it take for them to get their information, without them having to know about the city of Glendale's accounting system and how we do accounting," Bundschuh said.

A 2010 law requires cities as of Jan. 1, 2013, to post records online of all expenditures greater than $5,000. It applies to municipalities with populations greater than 2,500.

A municipality has two options: launching its own spending transparency database or posting a comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) that has been awarded an excellence in financial reporting designation by the Government Finance Officers Association. For fiscal 2009, the last year for which results were available, 37 Arizona municipalities received the award.

The implementation of Arizona OpenBooks, the state-level spending transparency database, opened a third possibility of cities submitting their data to the state database, said Tom Belshe, deputy director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

While the law gives Jan. 1 as the compliance deadline, Belshe said the true deadline is April 1, when quarterly reports are due.

Glendale launched its website using existing infrastructure, so the only cost the city incurred was for the hundreds of hours its information technology staff spent creating the system.

"We put substantial time into this because we really wanted to get it right," Bundschuh said.

While Glendale does have an award-winning CAFR, Bundschuh said the City Council and acting city manager Horatio Skeete, then the assistant city manager, wanted a way for residents to access spending information without scrolling through pages of information.

"The thing with the CAFR is it's a really big document, and our goal with Follow Your Money was providing the citizens of Glendale with information about our spending, our budget," Bundschuh said. "Because it's information they have the right to and that they should have."

Some residents and elected leaders have criticized Glendale for its spending decisions, particularly on retaining the Phoenix Coyotes. But city spokeswoman Marcheta Strunk said she has heard only positive feedback about how open the city has been through Follow Your Money.

"There's no sense in spending all that time and effort if people can't use it or understand it," Strunk said.

Like Glendale, Surprise offers a database of transactions, titled It's YOUR Money. According to the website, Surprise posts an award-winning CAFR and the database "is intended to provide additional information to augment the city's financial reporting."

In Phoenix, which already posts its award-winning CAFR online, Mayor Greg Stanton said the city is beginning work on building its own online transparency database.

Serena Unrein, public interest advocate for the Arizona Public Interest Research Group, said it only makes sense for cities to offer transaction-level information online.

If someone can go online to track a package or check an order status, she said, "you should be able to go online and look at online finances."

Many cities, including Prescott, Yuma and Casa Grande, are opting to continue posting award-winning CAFRs rather than launch websites or post data via OpenBooks.

Yuma spokesman Dave Nash said while the city plans to rely on its award-winning CAFR to comply with the law, that may not always be the case.

"We don't know how long the exemption will be allowed in the law. The Legislature could decide to change that just as easily as they passed that law to begin with," he said. "We just know for the time being that we are in good shape with that."

Mesa IT Manager Evan Allred said while his city has an award-winning CAFR, it also plans to upload its data via OpenBooks. The city's goal is to have it up by April 1, but meeting the deadline depends on how quickly it can work with its partner company to export the data, Allred said.

"The law allows us to post a CAFR, so that's our backup plan," he said.

Belshe, of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said cities shoulder the costs of complying with the unfunded mandate. The cost to upload data to OpenBooks is $5,000 to begin with, plus $1,000 annually for maintenance. Costs for cities to implement their own websites would vary.

"It's something that they have to budget for," he said. "And the fact that (the Arizona Department of Administration) is allowing them to budget for it and plan for it makes it easier. I don't think its going to be an issue."

Belshe said his goal is to have all cities' information linked to OpenBooks in the future, even if they choose to launch individual websites or only post CAFRs. Eventually, he said, OpenBooks will contain a listing that will take users to a city's database, its CAFR or its data on OpenBooks.

"It's cheaper, and it's the idea of having a one-stop shop," he said.

Belshe said his organization is holding a workshop this month to educate cities on what they need to do in order to comply with the law by April 1. The meeting will also help undecided cities pick one of the three options for posting spending data.

"There's growing pains, but we're working to get this done," Belshe said.

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